Norham Castle (sunrise)

Castles are very useful things, or were until recently. They are built especially at frontier locations, and their purpose is to attract the enemy, and spite him into attacking them. This spares the civil population from a great deal of injury, loss, and trouble, for the enemy will take it out on the castle, and in doing so leave the people alone. You see, in the old days, before the modern inventions of Total War, it was thought disgraceful to slaughter non-combatants, or otherwise mess with their affairs. But that was merely a negative consideration: something the good sport will avoid. Positive charity required that things like castles be erected and maintained, so the enemy could have something to do with all his weapons.

Norham Castle, or what’s left of it, is right up there on the Scottish border, in Northumberland. The Scots took it many times, starting under King David I (after whom I am named). The English kept taking it back. It was first conceived towards the end of the eleventh century, and for some stretches in the twelfth and thereafter, would change sides every couple of years. Of course, cattle would also change sides fairly often, the Scots omitting to remember that the English cattle did not belong to them, the English vice versa, and so forth. This would certainly inconvenience the civil population, but what can I say? No war is perfect. But cattle being a good, except to vegans, it is well that at least some people should have the use of them.

Now, as gentle reader may have guessed, this evening’s little essay is on painting. I have before me as I write a reproduction of John Mallord William Turner’s late prismatic and shimmering oil, depicting Norham Castle in the light of sunrise. Every Turner enthusiast will know immediately to which painting I refer. (Here it is.) I used to visit it frequently in the Tate, in my youth, when I lived just across the River Thames. Museum entry was free in those days, and the Tate was usually on my route into town. Other late Turners dazzled me, but this one more than any. I’d seen a glossy photo of it before, but when I first saw the original I was … stunned. (Perhaps there is a better word, but I couldn’t move.) Among other things, it was then I first realized the darker blues floating to left in the middle ground must represent something architectural: the blue of the sky reflecting from water onto dark stone in the sun’s shadow. (Later I discovered that this actually happens in nature.)

Was this painting abstract? Was it, as we often say glibly, a hundred years ahead of its time, prefiguring the colour field painters of New York in the 1950s? I love the mood colour juxtapositions of Mark Rothko (even though I dislike him), who also plays with light displacements, and cloud-cottonwool effects; but it is not the light of the sun he is presenting. Instead it is the light of the studio, and theory. Now, that is abstract, and fervidly intellectual. Turner would never have gone there, much as he might (grudgingly) have acknowledged Rothko’s genius as colourist. He would have condemned the works as unnatural, however, in a tone that insinuated immoral acts.

There is a cow, a little brown cow, to the fore of the Norham Castle painting, dabbed in a few deft strokes, or rather brush-pokes by the artist. This cow must be drinking from the Tweed — the sunlight has caught her in its reflections both from above and below. The animal participates in the sunrise, whether or not she can know; as everything in the composition participates in the vortex of the sunrise. But there is nothing deniable about that cow. She vindicates others disappearing into the river bank. She is unmistakeably real: a living, breathing, rather thirsty cow.

For half a century, Turner had been painting that castle in watercolours, whenever he found himself in those northern parts; for a quarter century, he had been fixated upon the effects of the rising sun, in that very scene. Now, in oil, and in a formal landscape, albeit exploded by all that he had learnt — and in all possible honest candour, three feet by four — he brought his thoughts together. Turner was a man who could think without words; remember without words. This is a very unusual gift. His paintings abound in non-literal imagery. (The literal and historical tends to slow him down, make him awkward.) He is a kind of holy innocent like that.

The painting imparts to the mind of the viewer (how to put this?) some appreciation of what is “real” about reality. It tells us, as it were, what the light “means.” And after we have taken it in; or rather, the more we can take in of that splendour — the better it explains inexplicable things. We begin to understand why light and colour were invented.

But that cow is the key to the whole thing.

It is what we are missing in art today, and what must somehow be restored, if we are to escape the vanity of artists’ boring little “statements”; their ideas about themselves. It is what Turner, Constable, Gainsborough, and innumerable Frenchmen and Italians, were mysteriously capable of seeing.

The cow.